By rights, the Italian Grand Prix should be the biggest event on the MotoGP calendar. Arguably the most spectacular track in the most spectacular setting on the calendar (though Phillip Island might rightly want to dispute this assertion), in the middle of Tuscany, one of the most beautiful parts of the planet.
It pretty much was once. In 2016, over 100,000 people turned up to watch Jorge Lorenzo pip Marc Marquez at the line to win the race. The following year saw a crowd of 98,000. These were among the biggest attendances of those years.
So it came as something of a shock last year when I was able to drive straight into the track on Sunday in 15 minutes. Gone was the customary 45 minutes spent sitting in traffic, slowly crawling toward the narrow two-lane country road which inexplicably serves as the main entrance to the legendary Italian circuit. Gone too were the masses of fans thronging that access road, swarming toward the track with chairs, ice boxes, and backpacks. Worst of all, the packed hillsides were also gone. At 43,661, the crowd was not exactly sparse, but it certainly wasn’t the same seething yellow mass that it was in previous years.
That the sea of yellow at Mugello had become, well, more of a large lake, points to at least one cause of the decline in spectators. This was the first year after the retirement of Valentino Rossi, and Mugello was always mainly a celebration of the Italian superstar. Since 2002, crowd numbers were reliably above 70,000, and often over 80,000 or even 90,000. Only in 2012 - Rossi’s second year on the Ducati, when any hope of success on the Italian machine had faded - did crowds fall to 64,000.
The fans’ faith in their hero was well placed. Rossi still holds the record for the most wins at Mugello - 7 in MotoGP, plus 1 each in 125 and 250 - so the chance of celebrating with Rossi on the podium was always there. Even when Rossi didn’t make it onto the podium by right, the fans would crowd the front straight chanting his name until he consented to appear.
So 2023 will be the year we find out whether Mugello has been able to reinvent itself as an event. It may be too much to ask for a return to the crowds to rival 2016, or get anywhere near the size of Le Mans, Sachsenring, or Assen. But a significant improvement on last year’s spectator attendance is necessary, if the long-term future of the circuit as a MotoGP venue is to be secured.
Made for MotoGP
Because the loss of Mugello would be unthinkable. It is a magnificent circuit, and one of the few which truly does justice to MotoGP machines. At Mugello, these 300 horsepower monsters can stretch their legs, and hit the limiter in sixth gear. Last year, Mugello took back the crown of the highest top speed recorded at a MotoGP track from Qatar, when Jorge Martin hit 363.6 km/h through the speed trap at the end of the straight.
There have been rumors that Dani Pedrosa once did 365 km/h at Mugello on the data, but the fact that the bikes are so fast that the rear wheel tends to lift just as it goes over the crest at the end of the straight - probably the cause of Valentino Rossi’s and Jorge Lorenzo’s engines blowing up in 2016 - which can distort the data. That is now much less of a problem, with so much aerodynamic downforce that both wheels are glued to the ground. Which also explains why the bikes are getting even faster at Mugello.
The glory of the front straight at Mugello is that it really isn’t all that straight. The riders come onto it carrying speed out of the final corner, Bucine, and already motoring. They roll up a slight incline before heading past the pits, and pitching the bike hard left through the 350+ km/h kink at the exit of pit lane.
As they start to lift the bikes to brake, they hit the crest. This makes the approach to San Donato, Turn 1, one of the most difficult on the calendar. Traveling faster than they do all year, the riders first have to sit up into a wall of air - imagine the forces involved in sitting up and being smacked in the chest by air traveling at 350 km/h - while braking as hard as possible, but being careful not to lock the front as the track falls away after the crest. It goes wrong mercifully rarely, but as we saw when Marc Marquez locked the front there in 2013, or Michele Pirro in 2018, it is terrifying. The wall to the left is very close. And the runoff is just about adequate for the speeds they are going.
Making things safer
There are a couple of other places where the walls are a little too close for comfort. Fortunately, the worst sections were tackled in 2015, with asphalt and runoff added at Luco and Materassi, and improvements made at Bucine, San Donato, Casanova-Savelli, and Arrabbiata. But the wall is still close at the exit of Poggio Seco, an intractable problem unless Mugello scrapes away a big chunk of hillside (and then has to stabilize the hillside again to prevent the area above it - which holds the paddock car park - from slipping down to fill the missing space).
But the track is glorious. San Donato offers a couple of lines, allowing riders to recover ground and plan retaliation if they are passed into Turn 1. The left-right flicks of Luco-Poggio Seco and Materassi-Borgo San Lorenzo mean an attack into the first part leaves you open to counterattack in the second.
Skirting the highest point of the track - halfway up the hillside - the riders prepare to sweep down through the long right, then long left of Casanova and Savelli. Challenging at the best of times, and easy to wash the front as you approach the bottom of the hill at Savelli.
Two long rights follow, Arrabbiata 1 and Arrabbiata 2. It is hard not to love corners which are literally named “Angry 1” and “Angry 2”, especially when they are named after my favorite pasta dish, and they do their names justice.
The great leveler
Then over the hill and more right-left flicks, first Scarperia and Palagio, then after the endless, treacherous, downhill right of Correntaio, Biondetti 1 and Biondetti 2. Scarperia is a place you can pass, as is Correntaio, but the Biondettis are just too fast.
What you can do at Biondetti is line yourself up to prepare the best possible line for another long, downhill left at Bucine. Get that right, and you give yourself an advantage coming out of the corner. If you can carry corner speed, you have an advantage coming out of the straight. If you can’t, it is wide enough to make it more of a V, allowing you to pick the bike up earlier and get harder onto the gas.
The last corner nicely illustrates why Mugello produces such great racing. There are so many ways to go fast around here that weaknesses are easily hidden, as long as you have other strengths. The Yamaha M1 has never been the fastest bike on the MotoGP grid, and yet they have 13 premier class wins at the Italian circuit. Fabio Quartararo won in his championship year, but he also finished less than seven tenths of a second behind Pecco Bagnaia in 2022, despite being obviously outgunned. What the Yamaha lacks in top speed on the straight, it can compensate for in carrying corner speed through and out of corners.
But it is Ducati who come into the Italian Grand Prix as favorites, and with the accompanying pressure to win. The Italian manufacturer has won four of the last five editions, with only Quartararo spoiling the party in 2021. And they have done it with four different riders: Andrea Dovizioso in 2017, Jorge Lorenzo in 2018 (his first win on the Ducati, coming immediately after hearing there was no place for him the following year), Danilo Petrucci in 2019, and Bagnaia in 2022.
They have every chance of making it five out of six. A Ducati has been on the front row for the last 45 races, and on the podium in each of the last 32 races. And there is a good chance of a Ducati win going to yet another rider: seven of the eight Ducati riders have been on the podium in 2023, Fabio Di Giannantonio the only exception.
Who would you put your money on? The safe bet is surely Pecco Bagnaia, the Italian leading the championship and once again showing sparkling form. When he is not falling off, of course: Le Mans was the third grand prix out of five he has crashed out of, the sprint race being his salvation in the championship.
But Marco Bezzecchi has given the factory Ducati rider a run for his money this year, and was fifth here last year in his rookie season, just behind Pramac’s Johann Zarco and Mooney VR46 teammate Luca Marini. Zarco is also strong, and fellow Pramac rider Jorge Martin has been far more competitive since getting back to winning ways. Nor can you write off Alex Marquez.
The other Italians
Who can stop them? The main candidates have to be the factory Aprilia riders, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales. Espargaro finished third here last year, and the 2023 bike has made another small step forward. Viñales has also been competitive, and the track suits the Aprilia RS-GP very well. The bike combines strong power with an ability to carry a lot of corner speed, and that should be enough for a good result.
Both RNF Aprilia riders should be back for Mugello as well, though it is unlikely that either Raul Fernandez or Miguel Oliveira will feature at the front of the race. Oliveira has first to be passed fit after his shoulder injury, and is likely to lack strength at a physically demanding circuit. And Fernandez will be looking to work on understanding the Aprilia, now that he is no longer hampered by persistent arm pump.
A second chance
We can’t write off Fabio Quartararo either. Since giving up on their 2023 settings and going back to the basic setup with which he won the 2021 MotoGP crown, Quartararo has found a little more confidence in the Yamaha M1. That is exactly what he will need at Mugello, and Mugello is a track where he can build on that. The nature of the circuit gives him some tools to work with, it defangs the biggest of the Ducati’s advantage, and plays to the strength of the Yamaha.
The first thing Quartararo will have to improve is his qualifying. So far this year, the third row has been the furthest forward he has been able to start. He should be able to do better at Mugello, and given the importance of grid position for both the sprint race and Sunday’s grand prix, that is going to be crucial.
It is hard to overstate just how important Mugello will be for Quartararo. It is the first of three tracks which should all suit the Yamaha, and where he has a strong record. A solid result at Mugello - not necessarily a podium, but clear signs of progress - will be vital to carrying confidence going into rounds at the Sachsenring and Assen.
Mugello will be important for Quartararo’s Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Franco Morbidelli as well. Mugello is the start of contract negotiation season, and Morbidelli is currently the prime candidate to lose his seat. His saving grace may be that the Yamaha is not a particularly appetizing prospect at the moment, so finding a worthy replacement may be hard. But unless Morbidelli starts to make a significant improvement from Mugello on, he is in real danger of losing his seat.
The most intriguing prospect at Mugello is what the KTMs will be capable of. In recent years, Mugello has been something of a bogey track for the Austrian manufacturer, despite Miguel Oliveira’s second place finish back in 2021. Brad Binder was the best KTM finisher last year, crossing the line in seventh, but riding above expectations.
It could all be different in 2023. The KTM RC16 has made a huge step forward, in several areas. The bike is much better in qualifying, much better in braking, and doesn’t overload the front tire the way some of the other bikes do. The arrival of Jack Miller, along with a couple more Ducati engineers and mechanics, has helped improve the electronics and engine character. Brad Binder has won a couple of sprint races, and has a podium at Jerez to show for his efforts. Miller too has been on the podium, finishing third at Jerez behind his Red Bull KTM teammate.
Finally, Honda. The RC213V still suffers from a lack of drive and to some extent a lack of front end feel. But Alex Rins managed to win on it in Texas, at a track where he is exceptional. And Marc Marquez was on course for a podium at Le Mans until crashing out with a couple of laps to go.
That was a remarkable race for Marquez, given it was his first one back since smashing into Miguel Oliveira in the opening laps of the Portuguese Grand Prix and breaking a bone in his right thumb. The eight-time world champion was far from race fit, and yet still managed to be competitive.
With three weekends off, Marquez has had the chance to get in some proper training, and gain some real fitness. Mugello has never been a great track for the Repsol Honda rider, but now that he is back to something approaching full fitness - the fourth operation which took place after this race last year has finally fixed the humerus he broke at Jerez in 2020 - he is enjoying trying to win races again.
Back to winning ways?
Could Marquez win? That seems unlikely. He has already exceeded his longest ever period between two wins, previously 581 days between Valencia 2019 and Sachsenring 2021. That streak will probably come to an end next weekend in Germany, a track where the Spaniard has dominated, where victory next Sunday would make it 602 days between his previous win at Misano in 2021 and the Sachsenring next week. But don’t write Marquez off for fighting for a podium this weekend at Mugello.
What of the other Honda riders? Joan Mir is still trying to get some confidence from a bike he still doesn’t trust, and a strong result will rest first and foremost on getting a feeling for the Honda’s front end. The Kalex chassis tested at Jerez and raced at Le Mans has helped a bit, but it was never going to be a silver bullet. Steps will have to be made, by both Honda and Mir.
The satellite Hondas don’t even have the luxury of the new frame. Takaaki Nakagami is in the doldrums, while Alex Rins is getting on with doing the best job he can under the circumstances. A good result for them will be finishing mid pack, which tells you all you need to know about the current competitiveness of the Honda.
There is going to be a wildcard - other than Michele Pirro on the Ducati, of course - at Mugello this weekend. While the weather in northern Europe is glorious, boding well for both the Sachsenring and Assen, southern Europe, and especially Italy, has seen an enormous amount of rainfall, with yet more to come. The weather forecast for Mugello looks very changeable, with a very good chance of rain for Saturday’s sprint race, and more rain possible on Sunday. If that happens, then all bets are off. And that might make an unpredictable championship even more difficult to predict.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.